This is not an editorial about rights. Enough has been said and repeated ad nauseum about rights in the current debate about free expression on campus. But we'll state our position once for the record: any student group has the right to bring whatever speaker it wants to campus, and other students have the right to vigorously protest the speaker and their message. Though Columbia University as a private institution is not bound by constitutional provisions of free speech, its fundamental mission is dedicated to the free expression of ideas.
We don't know how the University is going to discipline the anti-Minutemen protestors who rushed the stage, or the Minutemen supporters who eagerly jumped in to confront them. It's going to be difficult to track down the Minutemen goon who booted Martin Lopez (CC '09) in the head (see the Univision footage) and take him to task under University disciplinary procedures. However, the difficulty of this task should not deter the University from prosecuting those who resorted to expressing themselves through violence.
What no one seems to be talking about—certainly not Bill O'Reilly, who has done nothing but pontificate about rights—is the question of responsibility. Indeed, this is not a question the talking heads can answer—it is an internal question, one that we must ask ourselves. What responsibilities do we have as members of the Columbia community, and at risk of sounding heavy-handed, what responsibilities do we have as citizens of the United States? In our view, the two answers are intimately intertwined.
Unlike a right, which outlines the limits of what is acceptable, a responsibility is admittedly far harder to pin down. While we may have the right as students to bring the David Dukes of the world to campus, we have a responsibility to bring people for the purpose of education, not simply mere provocation. As students, we have a responsibility to bring people to campus that present informed, thoughtful positions on issues.
Consider Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minutemen Project and College Republican invitee in question. Gilchrist is staunchly anti-immigration. While many Americans hold comparable political positions, Gilchrist's stance, it seems to us, is informed by nothing other than xenophobic nativism. Were Gilchrist to have spoken, he most assuredly would not have presented the best possible argument against open immigration. A brief look at Gilchrist's previous statements on the topic make clear that he is not interested in substantive argumentation, but in incendiary sound bites. At a Memorial Day gathering of anti-immigration activists in May 2005, Gilchrist speech included statements such as: "Illegal immigrants will destroy this country," and "Every time a Mexican flag is planted on American soil, it is a declaration of war." As the Anti-Defamation League and similar watchdog groups have documented, Gilchrist's Minuteman Project has been advertised on various extremist Web sites. For example, an Aryan Nation Web site links to the Minuteman Project, proclaiming "a call for action on part of ALL ARYAN SOLDIERS."
Student leaders should apply a basic litmus test to every potential speaker: will that speaker present a well-considered, thoughtful argument? Will students come away from a talk given by that speaker better-informed? In short, will the person take part in the battle of ideas, rather than simply inciting a battle? In the case of Gilchrist, the answer to all of these questions is "no." This is not to say that there aren't reasonable activists and political figures that hold more conservative positions on the issue of immigration than the majority of Columbians. This is in fact precisely the point: there are dozens of them.
Bringing speakers like Gilchrist to campus is irresponsible not only because it fails to inform, but also because it distracts attention from the actual issue at hand. Whenever an extremist speaker comes to campus, the debate that always ensues is not a debate over the issue itself, but a debate over the boundaries of free speech on campus. As a result, there remains little substantive informed campus discussion—at least in public—on the issues themselves.
As individuals who enjoy the great privilege of an Ivy League education, we have a responsibility to use our time here to educate ourselves and each other on pressing issues to the greatest extent possible. The virtue of being in a diverse community is that we get to genuinely encounter positions vastly different from our own and to try and understand the best possible counter-arguments for our positions. If we are staunchly pro-choice, for example, college is a good time to encounter the strongest pro-life arguments, and vice versa.
We also have a responsibility to do justice by our own positions. Continuing with this example, the pro-choice camp has a responsibility to honor its own view. If pro-choicers genuinely believe in their own position, they have a responsibility to voice their own most compelling arguments.
Unfortunately, this was not the case on October 4th. In his October 16th New York Times column, "There's No Business Like Show Business," literary theorist Stanley Fish noted how Gilchrist was invited "not to impart instructions, but to provoke a response (and it is the response rather than the content that is always focused on in media reports)...the spirit presiding over this occasion from the beginning, was more Jerry Springer, not Socrates." Indeed, what have we to be proud of when a scholar like Fish likens our campus to the Jerry Springer show? Fish is entirely right to describe such events as nothing more than entertainment. Do we want public lectures on campus to be only theatrical spectacles? Do we want to spend hundreds of dollars in security fees alone on, in Fish's words, events "more akin to a keg party than to a reasoned discussion?"
We are not advocating shying away from engaging controversial ideas. Rather, we wish to highlight the irresponsibility of student leaders when they bring speakers to campus only for the sake of getting under the skin of fellow students. It degrades the idea of campus debate and the ideas themselves. The College Republicans are not unique in doing this, they are only the most recent offenders. We can go on discussing (and exercising) our right to bring folks like David Duke to campus, and debating the limits of legitimate protest. But it's more than a little self-indulgent.